Opinion Explosion in Indian Social Media – A Driver for Real Change or Just a Lot of Noise?

Written by  //  December 18, 2012  //  Economic & Social Policy  //  26 Comments

[A guest post by Nandana Sengupta. Nandana is a doctoral candidate in Economics at Carnegie Mellon University]

The last few months have been brimming with activism amongst middle class Indians making themselves heard on social media.  Every so often we experience sudden enthusiasm and equally sudden outrage; we publically chronicle both our frustration and celebration. Some would argue this is a good thing — interest in politics and involvement via any channel is a sign of participation and a stepping stone towards developing political awareness. Some would argue this phenomenon leads to a lot of noise, is superficial at best and is no driver for actual social change.  Both viewpoints seem logical – though a lot of the views expressed are perhaps naïve and somewhat emotional, there is a lot that can be made, a lot that can be broken by strong public sentiment. This article is an attempt to look at both sides of the argument and understand why this phenomenon can be seen as symptomatic of a largely positive change albeit with some riders.

Putting the question in context: Some Examples

The most obvious example of an organized movement that has tapped into the opportunity for generating aggressive public opinion using social media is the 2011 anti-corruption movement started by the NGO “India Against Corruption” which centered its campaign around the now-ubiquitous figure of Anna Hazare. Thousands of people gathered at protests grounds throughout India– but perhaps the main impetus came from those participating in the cause via Twitter and Facebook.  Smaller and less organized citizen movements have taken place in the past too where technology has been the used to generate the numbers required for the authorities to take note. Some have met with a degree of success (the Jessica Lall murder case) while some still carry on with no definite end in sight (Irom Sharmila’s fast for the repeal of AFSPA).

While the motives of the Anna Hazare movement were (arguably) noble, there is an ugly side to the herding of opinions on the internet. Consider for instance the aftermath of the recent Assam riots. Although confirmed information about the situation in the state was not freely available, stories of atrocities on both sides which had not been validated were ironically flowing freely and being propagated online. The fact that some of these rumors were highly provocative led to an atmosphere of suspicion, in some cases leading to violent consequences.

A third form of viral propaganda common online revolves around an individual.  Again Anna Hazare’s emergence as the head of a corruption free India comes to mind – this hitherto  little known figure could suddenly do no wrong, and anyone who dared to be circumspect about his intention was considered pro-corruption.  Another obvious example is the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi who has hordes of people out for his blood (this group holds him solely responsible for the 2002 riots) as well as a sizable cohort lauding his every endeavor(this group  considers him a beacon of development and even fantasizes about him as the next Prime Minister). The personality traits of the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh have also come under intense scrutiny in recent months. In all three cases these tiny bytes of opinion/information are often not backed by anything beyond the superficial and are the online equivalents of high school bullying or hero worship.

Why now?

It’s useful to think about the peculiarity of this age in the Indian context — why now, of all times is this phenomenon emerging? I can think of three major factors. The obvious one being technological — it’s easier today for the common person to be heard today than ever before. The right to hold and propagate opinions is no longer the sole luxury of the intellectual, the journalist, the business tycoon or the politician. Thanks to the information revolution anyone with an email address, a facebook or twitter account has a readymade audience.

Two other factors come to mind – and these are more to do with the nature of Indian society today. The first is demographic. Just having a mode to communicate is a sufficient condition for the opinion explosion, but whether it’s a necessary condition is not so obvious. A certain level of enthusiasm (and confidence) in a sizable proportion of the population is also a key factor. India prides itself on its “demographic dividend”:  in an era where most western countries are grappling with the problem of aging populations, India has amongst the highest proportions of young people in the world.  This demographic, in the most vocal stage of their lives has found a way to get its voice heard in cyber space.

There is another factor that it would be foolish to ignore — the economics. I’m in my late twenties, and unlike my preceding generation, I find that most of my friends love their life in India. Many who are studying or working abroad harbor serious ambitions of going back to the country of their birth. Part of the reason is because economically it’s an exciting place to be, especially in terms of entrepreneurship.  The other, less idealistic reason is that for the upper middle class Indian, our metropolitan cities are a happy confluence of two worlds:  the consumer culture of the west coexists with the luxuries the elite enjoy in the subcontinent.  The informal insurance provided by a large network of family ties is another attraction.  Yet, there is a lot that is wrong with our country and the young, ambitious and vocal cohort is also impatient. It demands change – perhaps forgetting that any large scale change in a country as diverse as India requires patient deliberation.  This impatience and demand for change can manifest itself as outbursts online.

The Opportunities Social Media Brings

The most obvious opportunity is increased access to information as well as analysis. One can subscribe at no cost to newspapers and magazines online – something that was impossible earlier.  Quality news and opinion pieces were accessible only to those willing to pay – not so anymore, most leading magazines and newspapers promote their content online via Facebook and Twitter. Not just that, we see what others in our network care about and get exposed to a whole variety of themes beyond our limited experiences.

Social media also provides an avenue for participation.  The usual grouse of the middle class in India is that it is not involved in governance. The relative size of the group is so small in a country still largely poor that it really cannot control who gets elected into government (this political impotence some suspect is the basis of much of its bias against politicians). There is also a feeling that given an opportunity this group (by virtue of its higher level of education) could do a lot of good for society – but its hands are tied and its voice stifled because of red tape and corruption.  With the advent of social media, more than any other section of Indian society, the middle class now has an opportunity to organize itself via campaigns and petitions online. How effective these are is questionable and this form of participation might be superficial too. That being said, those who are serious can get connected to previously established groups. For example, “Teach for India” is a successful movement that has managed to attract a number of young professionals to teach full-time in low income schools.  Gathering electronic signatures for petitions has also become much easier than before thanks to websites like “change.org” and “awaaz.org”.

The final, and in my opinion the greatest positive impact that social media can have is to encourage debate and discussion.  Given respect for others’ opinions and logical thinking, dissecting arguments and hearing out people who oppose one’s views can help soften stances. This calibration of world views and moving away from personal axioms has a scientific flavor and should be especially attractive to a country with an obsession for its engineers and doctors. 

The Concerns

While greater discussion is a good thing, if most participants in these discussions choose rhetoric over logic, it can lead to over simplification of issues and polarization of views. The demonization as well as hero-worship of certain public figures is one example of such herd behavior.  It is the multiplicity and diversity of opinions, the historically argumentative nature of the Indian populace that has sustained and nourished our democracy. It will be truly heartbreaking if on every public matter there are just two polarized groups engaged in a shouting match to put each other down – and no individuals in the middle of the spectrum to help facilitate a compromise.  The result can be serious instability. The aftermath of the Assam riots is an extreme example of this form of polarization which should not be taken lightly.

I’ve often been disappointed by the wanton and widespread use of the phrase “something is better than nothing” by my friends and colleagues. This is in fact not true – doing something can be worse than doing nothing in certain situations. Supporting a cause because one can’t think of any other way to contribute is symptomatic of both impatience and laziness -laziness in thought and impatience in action. The romantic notion that large movements always lead to optimal solutions is just that—a romantic notion. In fact, giving in to the demands of large public pressure groups can be regressive. Consider the case of South Korea, where a large number of school textbooks removed references to the theory of evolution in favor of creationist theories because of a successful public petition.  Another case in point is the ”Twitter Revolution” in Egypt whose outcome is not exactly what the idealist had in mind. This is not to say that public petitions and movements are always misguided, but that there are many possible solutions to a problem and it is not necessary that the solution with the most vocal public backing is the best.

Another concern is the inequity in access to social media in India – something that leads to illusionary beliefs about ground realities. Consider some of the basic requirements for posting views online on a regular basis. Literacy is one, continuous access to the internet another – rich and middle class Indians (a group that accounts for a very small proportion of the total population of India) are thus the primary suppliers and consumers of opinions over social media.  The problem occurs when we try to infer population beliefs from this limited sample and claim that what we see online is an accurate reflection of the “mood of the nation”. This is a classic case of “selection bias” – an issue economists have been grappling with for some time now. Put simply:  unlike data in science experiments, social science data is inherently biased (towards those who choose to participate) and therefore making inferences from it blindly, dangerous.

Survey design also matters – a lot.  Some surveys suffer from “leading questions”— the way a question is framed can lead to biased responses.  These two important factors “selection bias” and “survey design bias” are extremely important considerations for any student of politics or economics. Yet, public pressure groups often completely disregard these — for instance, the members of India Against Corruption regularly make statements like “This is what India wants –”, “India has spoken –” on the basis of internet polls which cannot possibly represent the entire population even if their survey designs were miraculously flawless.

Where we stand and where we are heading

Social Media is here to stay. And we are lucky to enjoy freedom of speech and expression (at least in theory). We can also hope that over the next few decades there will be substantial growth in literacy rates and internet access in India.  Given this scenario social media represents a great opportunity to get voices heard and for people to get involved.  It would be foolish to ignore the potential of social media as a political tool in India.  However we must remember the caveats – first, that opinions on social media represent only a small proportion of the population that is self-selecting, therefore making inferences about the whole is dangerous. Second, there is a danger of oversimplification and a tendency to generate public pressure for quick-fix solutions that may be suboptimal and lead to instability.

In the long run there is a real danger of some groups being formed which will neglect these caveats and develop hard line stances based on illusionary beliefs and imperfect sampling. These groups will also actively try to polarize public opinion, possibly using social media to further their propaganda. However I believe the nature of political discourse in India is rich and diverse enough to allow these groups to exist without being engulfed by them. In his book “The Argumentative Indian” Amartya Sen argues that one of the reasons that democracy has flourished in India is the long tradition of argumentation that we enjoy.  Expressing and defending opinions online is the natural evolution of this tradition. Thus in my opinion, even with the formation of pockets of people who hold extreme and hardline stances, on a balance of probabilities the information revolution is going to lead to a more equal and more aware society.

[Cover image attribution: By designbolts.com (Freeiconsweb.com) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons] 

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